Downtown District to beautify benches through art

BY JENNY EARL | APRIL 30, 2012 6:30 AM

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Taylor Ross said hip-hop puts him in the right mindset to create art.

With a park bench as his canvas and nothing more than a few spray paint cans, the 22-year-old grooved to the music pulsing through his headphones as he put the finishing touches on his latest masterpiece.

Ross' bench joined three others painted as a demonstration for BenchMarks, a project started by the Iowa City Downtown District, a nonprofit organization funded by property taxes from properties downtown and the North Side Marketplace and formerly known as the Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District. City officials will continue recruiting local artists throughout the summer to paint the 115 benches throughout Iowa City.

Joni Schrup, the owner of Discerning Eye, 119 E. Washington St., and member of the special-events committee for the Downtown District, said the project was designed to bring attention to the downtown and North Side areas.

"This is going to give us something to show off to people when they come downtown," she said. "Now [the benches] aren't very attractive, the city doesn't have a lot of money to take care of them, really it's a win-win."

In 2011, the former Downtown Association said it worked on a $40,000 budget, with 80 percent of funding going toward a director and operations.

Mark Ginsberg, owner of M.C. Ginsberg, 110 E. Washington St., developed the idea for the project and contacted Ely Sotillo, a UI graduate working on getting a teaching certification.

Ginsberg, who said he crossed paths with Sotillo during the piano project last year, said Sotillo's passion was the inspiration for the BenchMarks project.

"This creates a unique diverse environment for individuals from Burlington to Bloomington [Streets]. I thought this would be a large enough canvas to intersect unique thoughts," Ginsberg said. "Everyone uses [benches], but no one pays attention to them."

Sotillo said he hopes people realize the difference between their work and graffiti.

"I'm hoping people will see there are other art forms available that will help the downtown area just to give them a little more education behind street work," he said.

Ritu Jain, the owner of Textiles, 109 S. Dubuque St., and a member of the Downtown District special-events committee, recently sent a proposal to city officials asking permission to paint the remaining benches. Jain said the city should notify her group before the next painting demonstration at the Iowa Arts Fest, June 1.

At the pilot demonstration Sunday, Jain said the program has already started drawing people's attention downtown.

"It's really exciting to watch them work," she said as Ross painted an eye on a bench. "They're so intricate, they're precise — it's impressive to watch them. And people's reactions have been great, people stopping and asking questions — that's the kind of involvement we want."

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